What is a Steam Boat?

As technology advances, we see different forms of transportation being improved as well such as boats. The earlier boats were quite unstable and didn’t have the engines like the modern ships have. Sea travel has become way safer now because of advancements in the form of design and mechanisms. Traditionally, Steamboats were one of the most popular ones used for different purposes including travel and cargo. 

What is a Steamboat?

A boat that uses steam as a main source of energy to power the propellers or engines is called a steamboat. They have become outdated but many areas where expensive boats cannot be managed still use these boats because they are cheap to build and maintain. Not many fishermen can use high-tech engine-based boats which is why they develop small steamboats which can be used with propellers as well. In certain cases, the bigger vessels have also been made with steam-powered engines. 

History of Steamboats

During the 19th century, steam-driven boats had become popular because of the steam engine which was invented by Thomas Newcomen in the 18th century. However, these engines did not become popular right away because they were quite large and heavy while generating relatively low power. As a result, they consumed most of the allowable weight on the boat making very little space for extra items as well as passengers. The Newcomen Steam Engines indicated that a very large boat was required for the transport of goods and people along with the engine weight. 

Therefore, there were some changes to the first design by James Watt while many Americans were constantly engaged to improve the mechanism of these boats as well as apply the technique towards long-distance maritime travel. The rotary motor engines were then designed for steamboats which created more steam towards each end of piston stroke thereby adding more power. However, the problem of low power to weight ratio was still there. 

Further improvements were made as research continued towards finding a lightweight engine for the steamboats. Richard and Oliver Introduced their high-pressure engines during the 1800s which had improvements in the design of boilers as well as engine components. During the late 19th century, Compound Steam Engines were used in steamboats and used the steam from a high-pressure cylinder to a low-pressure cylinder. The ultimate result of this was a higher efficiency while it also required less coal to make high steam power. 

The compound steam engines were among the first ones which greatly improved the shipping industry. Many new players entered the market while further research continued. The steamboats and large vessels were then used for the purpose of goods transfer and international trade respectively. Most recently, the propulsion engines that run with steam turbines are used. These were developed by the end of the 19th century and had improvements throughout the 20th century.

Steamboats in Civil War

Steamboats have been used at various times during the wars. The US Civil War is one of the notable ones where steamboats were used. During this war, the West had control over the major rivers. Other than using the riverboats, the steamboats were used as they were bigger and carried major manpower. However, the situation of the ambush was also seen because there were multiple major accidents during the war. 

The Ambush of Steamboat J. R. Williams led to the loss of many important supplies. Union escorts ran out of cargo although there was not much impact on the war outcomes. Since steamboats of the earlier times did not have any kind of major weapons, multiple attacks were unavoidable. 

However, even bigger accidents took place later on especially in the case of steamboats. During the end of the Civil War, the accident of a steamboat named Sultana was considered the worst possible disaster of the civil war. This is because it was a ship carrying more than 1700s souls on board, all of which were recently freed from the prison camp. However, due to the over-capacity on the ship, there was major resistance to the engines and the ship blew. More than 1700 deaths were recorded for this incident. This was one of the main reasons why the power to weight ratio became an important factor in the development of modern boats.

What Caused Problems to Steamboats?

Although steamboats have become quite popular now and there have been significant improvements to the design, they are still not a preferred mode of transportation despite being cheaper than air travel. One reason for this is because of railways. The advancement of railways and steam locomotives mainly pushed back the steamboats and large vessels. With countries engaging in International Trade and laying down railway tracks between multiple countries, the railways have become a preferred way of transport. 

Although shipping is a feasible option, it takes a very long time. The early steamboats used to run at barely 3 to 4 miles an hour while the modern ones are able to reach 24 miles an hour. This is equivalent to 37 kilometers an hour. This sure looks like a good figure when considering a ship but it is surely not in a match when we talk about railways. A steam train can reach up speeds of 150 kilometers an hour or even more. If the train is Maglev, which runs on electricity and magnets, the speeds cross 500 kilometers an hour. 

To ensure fast and smooth trade, the companies definitely wanted an alternative that could ensure things happen at the best possible pace. Even though ship cargo is cheaper than rail cargo, the difference is not worth it when the time factor is considered. The success of railways led to the downfall of steamboats as well as large vessels. People also prefer to travel by train and not by boats because there is a major journey time difference in both. 

Future of Steamboats

From what we see, the steamboats are on an unpredictable stage. There are various positive factors. Firstly, the cost of transporting via air has increased significantly over the past few years while the cost of transporting via sea has not increased as much because air travel requires fuel while sea travel requires coal. Moreover, with better engines and a sea traffic management system, the ships now take shorter distances and lower time to ensure that the cargo is reaching on time. In addition to that, there are boat storage facilities such as Sunterra Storage that can store your boat to ensure its maintenance and quality. There are also insurance policies specific to ship cargo that have increased the trust of people in these services.

While there are many factors that suggest steamboats will continue to rise, there are others that suggest the opposite. One of the main things is the increased pressure by the different types of environmentalist organizations and groups. They claim that steam engines are causing a major rise in global warming and emitting pollutants out into the air. Steamboats will not be able to survive much if these organizations continue increasing their pressure. 

In addition to that, not every country has a seaport while every country has developed its own setup of airports and proper air traffic. As a result, there has been an increase in air cargo as compared to sea cargo over the past many years. Moreover, people also use air travel as a preferred medium of international travel and only a few want to go for cruise trips. Nonetheless, top economies of the world such as the UK, USA, Australia, and Canada still have active seaports that can be utilized for the purpose of trade and travel. 


Steamboats have been quite popular in history. With time, they have been improved and evolved into much more sophisticated designs that we see nowadays. However, concerns against these ships are also alarming as they pose a major threat to the entire shipping industry. The future is quite unpredictable. Interested to learn more facts about steamboats? We recommend you to read Steamboats and the Industrial Revolution next.